Discovering One's Hidden Psychopathy, With James Fallon
Neuroscientist James Fallon discusses how he came to discover (and how he's learned to live with) the fact that he's a borderline psychopath.
James Fallon teaches neuroscience at the University of California Irvine, and through research explores the way genetic and in-utero environmental factors affect the way the brain gets built -- and then how individuals' experience further shapes its development. He lectures and writes on creativity, consciousness and culture, and has made key contributions to our understanding of schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
Only lately has Fallon turned his research toward the subject of psychopaths -- particularly those who kill. With PET scans and EEGs, he's beginning to uncover the deep, underlying traits that make people violent and murderous.
James Fallon: My book, The Psychopath Inside, is a memoir and it’s a mix of a personal story and what the science is, that is, the psychiatry and the genetics and the neuroscience behind what the subject is which is psychopathy. But it’s really a story about somebody, me, who at 60 finds out he’s not really who he thought he was all along in his whole life. And not until I had just by serendipity, by chance, started to run across biological evidence first from PET scans, positron emission tomography scans, that I was involved with – acted as a control in one study in Alzheimer’s disease and also had my genetics done. So it was just as a control and to compare to other people with Alzheimer’s. And so it was through that about, oh, seven years ago that I found out something very strange. And this something strange both in terms of my brain pattern and genetics happened to run, it intersected with another study I had been doing – a minor study on looking at PET scans and FMRIs, another kind of brain scan, and SPEC scans of killers, really bad murderers.
And these are particularly bad hombres and some serial killers, et cetera. And I had looked at these and had been asked to analyze them over the years from the early 1990s onward. And about the same time, 2005, when I was doing my own scans for this Alzheimer’s study I had a whole group of these killers and also psychopaths and looked at a pattern. I said, “My God, there’s a pattern in the brain for these guys.” And so I started to talk about it, give talks and, you know, at academic institutions and psychiatry departments, law schools, et cetera, just to kind of vet the idea. But at the same time I got this pile of scans back that included my own and these other controls. And I was looking through – I got to the last scan of that study of the Alzheimer’s and I looked at it and I asked my technician. I said, “You’ve got to check the machine because this is obviously one of the killers.” One of the murderers. It looked like really a severe case of brain activity loss in a psychopath.
And so when I ultimately they said, “No, this is part of – it’s in this control group.” And I had to tear back the name on it because I always do everything blind but this was like something’s really wrong. And it turned out to be my name. So it was like, you know, Gandalf shows up at the door and you’re it. So that started this whole trajectory. Now at first I laughed at it and I just didn’t care. We were so busy working on the genetics of Alzheimer’s and also schizophrenia and I had just started an adult STEM cell company. And so I was so busy with stuff I kind of let it go for a couple of years really – about a year and a half. But then the genetics came back and I had all the genetic alleles, the forms of the genes that are associated with a high aggression and violence, psychopathy, and a low kind of empathy, that intrapersonal emotional empathy. And low anxiety.
And when I got that back I started to take a little bit of note but I still didn’t care about it. And it wasn’t until I ended up giving a talk. I was asked to give a talk with the ex-prime minister of Oslo who had bipolar disorder. And so I went to Oslo to give a public talk with him, the clinician, on bipolar. You know, what’s the brain patterns. And I had to use my own example of how you do imaging genetics. Take imaging of the brain, genetics, put it together in a mathematical model and how we figure it out so it can be used for all sorts of psychiatry medicine. And in the audience were all these psychiatrists there and I went through my own pathologies if you will and near clinical syndromes and my genetics and my brain scan. And at the end the head of the department there said, “You don’t even know this I bet but you’re bipolar first of all because you don’t have the kind of bipolar in the United States that they use, one of the kinds.” So this is interesting.
He said, “I want to talk to you afterwards.” So I met with these psychiatrists afterwards. They said you’re probably borderline psychopath too looking at all this. Well this was kind of a real surprise. It’s the first time I took it seriously because I – not only the biological evidence but these people didn’t even know me. They were just looking at the data, you know. And they could see my behaviors and in talking to me for a couple of hours after that talk at somebody’s house they said you probably do. So when I flew back to the United States what I did was I started asking the psychiatrist, the neurologist that I knew really well for many years and who know my behaviors including my not so nice behaviors. And I said, “You’ve got to tell me what you really think of me.” And each one of them had said, “Well, you know, we’ve told you for many years you’re, you know, you do psychopathic things. You’re probably a borderline psychopath.”
I said, “No, no, no. You said I was crazy.” They said, “Well we never said you were crazy. You’re not crazy. But you’re like a borderline psychopath.” Then I asked all my close friends, my wife, the people in my family and they all had the same thing to say. And at that point it was really kind of hit me. I was like well this is maybe true. And I started to take the test for psychopathy and I came up borderline, a borderline psychopath. That is a very high score without being what’s called a categorical full blown psychopath which contains these – a lot of antisocial and criminal parts of it. And since I’m not a criminal – I’ve had conversations with the police many times but I was always able to kind of talk my way out of it, get them to laugh, you know. But I have no record or anything. But I’ve done some fun things.
Now and so at that point – and I was just sitting with these two psychiatrists and I said, “You’ve got all this evidence in front of you. I mean, do you see what’s going on?” And I’m telling you I didn’t care. I didn’t care at all. And they said, “That’s the point. You don’t care.” And so at that point, you know, I had started to – I gave a TED talk and then a MOTH talk, science festival. And then I got contacted by some people that did different crime shows, you know, want to be on Criminal Minds and things like that. But after that I got contacted by – the same day by three literary agents in New York and they said you ought to write a book about this. And I said, “Are people really interested in this?” And it was personal too.
When I wrote the book I really, you know, had a heart to heart talk with my whole family because this is going to be – could be embarrassing, you know, for all of us. There could be some exposure and risk. But they were sort of heroic about it. I just had to count on my own narcissism to drive it. Like I can do this. I can beat this. I can write this. I’m tough. And so I kind of used some of the traits to drive it forward. So actually coming out like this, it also assured that I couldn’t get away with things anymore, you know. When you tell people what you’re doing like I do in the book, many of the things, they’re looking for it. And so it’s like, you know, my game’s up in a sense. But I’m also 66, you know, do I really want to be that way anymore. I still have fun with it but it’s just a challenge, right. It’s a challenge and I think I can overcome it.
So I have to use my ego, my sense of narcissism to manipulate myself to handle it, you know. And but it was really my family that said go for it. My mother is still alive and she’ll say you’re saying too much. You’re saying way too much. And, of course, I said, “Ma, you don’t know the half of it.” Of course I said as long as you’re alive and my family’s alive, my kids, you know, I’m telling a piece of the story but I give a fair amount in the book more than in my talks. But I asked the psychiatrist who has known me for many years what behaviors that are not so obvious that I do to people that would be psychopathic. And he asked me about revenge and my getting even. Now everybody gets mad, right. Somebody ticks you off, you get mad. You get mad for 5 seconds, 30 seconds, a minute – everybody. It’s a normal thing. And your serotonin kicks in after about 5 minutes and it cools you down.
In psychopaths it doesn’t happen. It stays on boil – it stays on a hard boil. But even though you can control it you’re still angry. You can stay angry for extremely long periods of time. And that is sort of set up in utero because those areas of the brain that respond to serotonin are altered by these so called warrior genes. So they don’t respond when you get older when the serotonin would have made you calm. And so psychopaths will get very angry but they’ll stay angry. And in the case of mine what I told two of the psychiatrists who are very close to me. I said when I get mad I don’t show it to anybody. I said I could be furious at you and you’d never know it. I show no anger whatsoever. I don’t show anxiety. I said first of all you’ll never know. And I said I can sit on it for a year or two or three or five. But I’ll get you. And I always do. And they don’t know where it’s coming from. They can’t tie it to the event and it comes out of nowhere.
And something dramatic happens in their life but I’m very careful. Almost pristine about it. That it’s a fair response. It’s a proportional response. So if somebody does something – you can do a lot, you know. You can say anything to me and I won’t get mad, really. Those things don’t get me mad. Somebody’s trying to get me – it’s like another psychopath or another, you know, somebody’s trying to mess with me. I have a high threshold so many things really don’t get me mad. You can just about do anything. I’m pretty cool that way. But if you really do then I always get even and I’ll make sure it’s the same sort of intensity that their initial damage. And I said I can stay cool and it’ll happen and they’ll look around – what happened with their job, what happened with their family, what happened – they won’t know. And they both said that’s psychopathic. That’s exactly it.
And so some of the, you know, the people at the BBC in Australia who I talked to, some science writers said that’s what Dexter is. So really when I saw Dexter I absolutely understood it because he was being fair, he was being fair to the universe and the world of ethics of the universe he’s absolutely fair. Morality wise not so much but I could really understand that behavior.
One of the surprises for me starting about six years ago and for the few years until now – when I said, you know, something’s really wrong that I was not cognizant of – I didn’t know I had this. And even though other people did they won’t tell you, you know. Once I asked they said of course you’re that. But so people protect people close to them. They protect their tormentors. It’s kind of a family Stockholm effect. And I interviewed some really dangerous bad guys in prison and they protect their tormentors. And so a lot of times you won’t find this out. You have to ask and you have to say I’m not gonna get even with you. Just tell me the truth and you say it to enough people that they know you’re doing it. Then you’ll find that out. So when that happened and I started to think.
I said well how can I change this without anybody knowing. So I just started with my wife a couple of years ago. I started and every time I was about to do something with her, you know, we’re pouring a glass of wine or eating or going to a show – anything. I would stop for one moment and I would say what are you doing. And I noticed that every time I was about to do something with her it was absolutely the most selfish thing. And for regular behavior it’s like you pour yourself the wine first, you serve yourself first, you try to get out of some duties even though you make it look like you’re cleaning up. But also it gets worse than that. So doing, you know, for birthdays or if there was a big party going on and there was a death in the family, an uncle or an aunt, and I thought there’s another party – I’d make up an excuse to go to the party. I would just blow off those things.
But it would extend it to everything I was doing. You know, and even to people who are close to me – not only family. And I noticed that, and I said, geez, everything I’m doing is maximally like selfish. So I have to slow myself down now and try to just do the correct thing – very small. You know you have to start small because that’s where you have to start because the other stuff’s too traumatic to really try to change yourself. But I tried doing this and I noticed that – and I didn’t tell her I was doing this and other people. And they said I like your behavior, you’re different, what happened. And I told them, I said you know I don’t really mean it. And they said – my wife said I don’t care. You’re just treating me better. And I went – I couldn’t believe it. I thought – see I had taken the whole thing of empathy and meaning beyond what people behaviorally are asking for.
And everybody in my life they said who knows what people’s motivations are. If you’re treating me well it means you’re trying. That’s all that matters. This blew me away and I really still don’t understand it but I keep trying to do that, right. And so but I have to stop myself in each one of these – anytime I do something I say what’s the right thing to do. When you do that and you’re somebody like me you realize your whole day is spent thousands of times doing the most selfish things.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
Neuroscientist James Fallon discusses how he came to discover (and how he's learned to live with) the fact that he's a borderline psychopath. Fallon is the author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain (http://goo.gl/ioGrhS).
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Since 1957, the world's space agencies have been polluting the space above us with countless pieces of junk, threatening our technological infrastructure and ability to venture deeper into space.
- Space debris is any human-made object that's currently orbiting Earth.
- When space debris collides with other space debris, it can create thousands more pieces of junk, a dangerous phenomenon known as the Kessler syndrome.
- Radical solutions are being proposed to fix the problem, some of which just might work. (See the video embedded toward the end of the article.)
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched a human-made object into orbit for the first time. It marked the dawn of the Space Age. But when Sputnik 1's batteries died and the aluminum satellite began lifelessly orbiting the planet, it marked the end of another era: the billions of years during which space was pristine.
Today, the space above Earth is the world's "largest garbage dump," according to NASA. It's littered with 8,000 tons of human-made junk, called space debris, left by space agencies over the past six decades.
The U.S. now tracks more than 25,000 pieces of space junk. And that's only the debris that ground-based radar technologies can track. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network estimates there could be more than 170 million pieces of space debris currently orbiting Earth, with the majority being tiny fragments smaller than 1 mm.
Space debris: Trashing a planet
Space debris includes all human-made objects, big and small, that are orbiting Earth but no longer serve a useful function. A brief inventory of known space junk includes: a spatula, a glove, a mirror, a bag filled with astronaut tools, spent rocket stages, stray bolts, paint chips, defunct spacecraft, and about 3,000 dead satellites — all of which are orbiting Earth at speeds of roughly 18,000 m.p.h.
By allowing space debris to accumulate unchecked, we could be building a prison that keeps us stranded on Earth for centuries.
Most space junk is floating in low Earth orbit (LEO), the region of space within an altitude of about 100 to 1,200 miles. LEO is also where most of the world's 3,000 satellites operate, powering our telecommunications, GPS technologies, and military operations.
"Millions of pieces of orbital debris exist in low Earth orbit (LEO) — at least 26,000 the size of a softball or larger that could destroy a satellite on impact; over 500,000 the size of a marble big enough to cause damage to spacecraft or satellites; and over 100 million the size of a grain of salt that could puncture a spacesuit," wrote NASA's Office of Inspector General Office of Audits.
If LEO becomes polluted with too much space junk, it could become treacherous for spacecraft, threatening not only our modern technological infrastructure, but also humanity's ability to venture into space at all.
By allowing space debris to accumulate unchecked, we could be building a prison that keeps us stranded on Earth for centuries.
An outsized problem
Space debris of any size poses grave threats to spacecraft. But tiny, untrackable micro-debris presents an especially dreadful problem: A paint fragment chipped off a spacecraft might not seem dangerous, but it careens through space at nearly 10 times the speed of a bullet, packing enough energy to puncture an astronaut's suit, crack a window of the International Space Station, and potentially destroy satellites.
Impacts with space debris are common. During the Space Shuttle era, NASA replaced an average of one to two shuttle windows per mission "due to hypervelocity impacts (HVIs) from space debris." To be sure, some space debris are natural micrometeoroids. But much of it is human-made, like the fragment that struck the starboard payload bay radiator of the STS-115 flight in 2006.
"The debris penetrated both walls of the honeycomb structure, and the shock wave from the penetration created a crack in the rear surface of the radiator 6.8 mm long," NASA wrote. "Scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive X-ray detection analysis of residual material around the hole and in the interior of the radiator shows that the impactor was a small fragment of circuit board material."
The European Space Agency notes that any fragment of space debris larger than a centimeter could shatter a spacecraft into pieces.
Impact chip on the ISSESA
To dodge space junk, the International Space Station (ISS) has to conduct "avoidance maneuvers" a couple times every year. In 2014, for example, flight controllers decided to raise the ISS's altitude by half a mile to avoid collision with part of an old European rocket in its orbital path.
NASA has strict guidelines for how it decides to perform these maneuvers.
"Debris avoidance maneuvers are planned when the probability of collision from a conjunction reaches limits set in the space shuttle and space station flight rules," NASA wrote. "If the probability of collision is greater than 1 in 100,000, a maneuver will be conducted if it will not result in significant impact to mission objectives. If it is greater than 1 in 10,000, a maneuver will be conducted unless it will result in additional risk to the crew."
These precautionary measures are becoming increasingly necessary. In 2020, the ISS had to move three times to avoid potential collisions. One of the latest close-calls came with such little warning that astronauts were instructed to take shelter in the Russian segment of the space station, in order to be closer to their Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft, which serves as an escape pod in case of an emergency.
The Kessler syndrome
The hazards of space debris grow exponentially over time. That's because of a problem that NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler outlined in 1978. The so-called Kessler syndrome states that as space becomes increasingly packed with spacecraft and debris, collisions become more likely. And because each collision would create more debris, it could trigger a chain reaction of collisions — potentially to the point where near-Earth space becomes a shrapnel field through which safe travel is impossible.
A paint fragment chipped off a spacecraft might not seem dangerous, but it careens through space at nearly 10 times the speed of a bullet, packing enough energy to puncture an astronaut's suit, crack a window of the International Space Station, and potentially destroy satellites.
The Kessler syndrome may already be playing out. Perhaps it began with the first known case of a spacecraft being severely damaged by artificial space debris, which occurred in 1996 when the French spy satellite Cerise was struck by a piece of an old European Ariane rocket. The collision tore off a 13-foot segment of the satellite.
The next major space debris incident occurred in 2007 when China conducted an anti-satellite missile test in which the nation destroyed one of its own weather satellites, triggering international criticism and creating more than 3,000 pieces of trackable space debris, most of which was still in orbit ten years after the explosion.
Then, in 2009, an unexpected collision between communications satellites — the active Iridium 33 and the defunct Russian Cosmos-2251 — produced at least 2,000 large fragments of space debris and as many as 200,000 smaller pieces, according to NASA. About half of all space debris currently orbiting Earth came from the Iridium-Cosmos collision and China's missile test.
There's more. Russia's BLITS satellite was spun out of its orbital path in 2013 after being struck by a piece of space debris suspected to have come from China's 2007 missile test; the European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-1A satellite was struck by a tiny particle in 2016; and a window of the ISS was hit by a small fragment that same year.
As nations and private companies plan to send more satellites into orbit, collisions and impacts could soon become more common.
The promise and peril of satellite mega-constellations
Space organizations have recently begun launching satellites into low Earth orbit at an unprecedented pace. The goal is to create "mega-constellations" of satellites that provide high-quality internet access to virtually all parts of the planet.
Internet-providing satellites have existed for years, but they're typically expensive and provide slower service than land-based internet infrastructure. That's mainly because it can take a relatively long time for a signal to travel from the satellite to the user due to the high altitudes at which many of these satellites float above us in geostationary orbit.
China and companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon aim to solve this problem by launching thousands of satellites into lower orbits in order to reduce signal latency, or the time it takes for the signal to travel to and from the satellite. But some space experts worry satellite mega-constellations could create more space debris.
"We face entirely new challenges as hundreds of satellites are launched every month now — more than we used to launch in a year," Thomas Schildknecht of the International Astronomical Union said at a European Space Agency conference in April. "The mega-constellations are producing huge risks of collisions. We need more stringent rules for traffic management in space and international mechanisms to ensure enforcement of the rules."
A 2017 study funded by the European Space Agency found that the deployment of satellite mega-constellations into low Earth orbit could increase the number of catastrophic collisions by 50 percent. Still, it remains unclear whether sending more satellites into space will necessarily cause more collisions.
SpaceX, for example, claims that Starlink satellites aren't at significant risk of collision because they're equipped with automated collision-avoidance propulsion systems. However, this system seemed to fail in 2019 when a Starlink satellite had a close call with a European science satellite named Aeolus. The company later said it had fixed the bug.
A batch of 60 Starlink test satellites stacked atop a Falcon 9 rocket.SpaceX
Currently, there are no strict international rules governing the deployment and management of satellite mega-constellations. But there are some international efforts to curb space debris risks.
The most concerted effort is the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), a forum that comprises 13 of the world's space agencies, including those of the U.S., Russia, China, and Japan. The committee aims "to exchange information on space debris research activities between member space agencies, to facilitate opportunities for cooperation in space debris research, to review the progress of ongoing cooperative activities, and to identify debris mitigation options."
The IADC's Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines list three broad goals:
1. Preventing on-orbit break-ups
2. Removing spacecraft from the densely populated orbit regions when they reach the end of their mission
3. Limiting the objects released during normal operations
But even though the world's space agencies recognize the gravity of the space debris problem, they're reluctant to act because of an incentives-based dilemma.
Space debris: A classic tragedy of the commons
Space debris is everyone's problem, but no one entity is obligated to solve it. It's a tragedy of the commons — an economic scenario in which individuals with access to a shared and scarce resource (space) act in their own best interest (spend the least amount of money). Left unchecked, the shared resource is vulnerable to depletion or corruption.
For example, the U.S. by itself could develop a novel method for removing space debris, which, if successful, would benefit all organizations with assets in space. But the odds of this happening are slim because of a game-theoretical dilemma.
"[In space debris removal] each stakeholder has an incentive to delay its actions and wait for others to respond. This makes the space debris removal setting an interesting strategic dilemma. As all actors share the same environment, actions by one have a potential immediate and future impact on all others. This gives rise to a social dilemma in which the benefits of individual investment are shared by all while the costs are not. This encourages free-riders, who reap the benefits without paying the costs. However, if all involved parties reason this way, the resulting inaction may prove to be far worse for all involved. This is known in the game theory literature as the tragedy of the commons."
Similar to trying to curb climate change, there's no clear answer on how to best incentivize nations to mitigate space debris. (For what it's worth, the game theoretical model in the 2018 study found that a centralized solution — e.g., one where a single actor makes decisions on mitigating space debris, perhaps on behalf of a multinational coalition — is less costly than a decentralized solution.)
Although space organizations have been slow to act, many have been exploring ways to remove space junk from orbit and prevent new debris from forming.
Cleaning up space debris
Space organizations have proposed and experimented with many ways to remove debris from space. Although the techniques vary, most agree on strategy: get rid of the big stuff first.
That's because collisions involving large objects would create lots of new debris. So, removing big debris first would simultaneously clean up low Earth orbit and slow down the phenomenon of cascading collisions described by the Kessler syndrome.
To clean up low Earth orbit, space organizations have proposed using:
- Electrodynamic tethers: In 2017, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency attempted to remove space debris by outfitting a cargo ship with an electrodynamic tether — essentially a fishing net made of stainless steel and aluminium. The craft then tried to "catch" space debris with the aim of dragging it into lower orbit, where it would eventually crash to Earth. The experiment failed.
- Ultra-thin nets: NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program has funded research for a project that would deploy extremely thin nets designed to wrap around space debris and drag them down to Earth's atmosphere.
- "Laser brooms": Since the 1990s, space researchers have proposed using ground-based lasers to strategically heat one side of a piece of space debris, which would change its orbit so that it re-enters Earth's atmosphere sooner. Because the laser systems would be based on Earth, this strategy could prove to be relatively affordable.
- Drag sails: As a relatively passive way to accelerate the de-orbit of space junk, NASA and other space organizations have been exploring the viability of attaching sails to space junk that would help guide debris back to Earth. These sails could either be packed within new satellites, to be deployed once the satellites are no longer useful, or attached to existing space junk.
Illustration of Brane Craft Phase II, which would use thin nets to capture space debris.Siegfried Janson via NASA
But perhaps one of the most promising solutions for space debris is the ESA-funded ClearSpace-1 mission. Set to launch in 2025, ClearSpace-1 intends to be the first mission that successfully removes space debris from orbit. The goal is to launch a satellite into orbit and rendezvous with the upper stage of Europe's Vega launcher, which was left in space after a 2013 flight.
ClearSpace-1 satellite using its robotic arm to capture space debrisClearSpace-1
Once the satellite meets up with the debris, it will try to capture the junk with a robotic arm and then perform a controlled atmospheric reentry. The task will be challenging, in part because space junk tumbles as it flies above Earth, meaning the satellite will have to match its movements in order to safely capture it.
Freethink recently spoke to the ClearSpace-1 team to get a better understanding of the mission and its challenges.
Catching the Most Dangerous Thing in Space Freethink via youtube.com
But not all space debris removal strategies center on technology. A 2020 paper published in PNAS argued that imposing taxes on each satellite in orbit would be the most effective way to clean up space. Called "orbital use fees," the plan would charge space organizations an annual fee of roughly $235,000 per each satellite that's in orbit. The fee would, in theory, incentivize nations and companies to declutter space over time.
The main hurdle of orbital-use fees is getting all of the world's space organizations to agree to such a plan. If they do, it could help eliminate the tragedy of the commons aspect of space debris and potentially quadruple the value of the space industry by 2040.
"The costly buildup of debris and satellites in low-Earth orbit is fundamentally a problem of incentives — satellite operators currently lack the incentives to factor into their launch decisions the collision risks their satellites impose on other operators," the researchers wrote. "Our analysis suggests that correcting these incentives, via an OUF, could have substantial economic benefits to the satellite industry, and failing to do so could have substantial and escalating economic costs."
No matter the solution, cleaning up space debris will be a complex and expensive challenge that requires a coordinated, international effort. If the global community wants to maintain modern technological infrastructure and venture deeper into space, conducting business as usual isn't an option.
"Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water," Jan Wörner, European Space Agency (ESA) director general, said in a statement. "That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue."
It uses radio waves to pinpoint items, even when they're hidden from view.
"Researchers have been giving robots human-like perception," says MIT Associate Professor Fadel Adib. In a new paper, Adib's team is pushing the technology a step further. "We're trying to give robots superhuman perception," he says.
The researchers have developed a robot that uses radio waves, which can pass through walls, to sense occluded objects. The robot, called RF-Grasp, combines this powerful sensing with more traditional computer vision to locate and grasp items that might otherwise be blocked from view. The advance could one day streamline e-commerce fulfillment in warehouses or help a machine pluck a screwdriver from a jumbled toolkit.
The research will be presented in May at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. The paper's lead author is Tara Boroushaki, a research assistant in the Signal Kinetics Group at the MIT Media Lab. Her MIT co-authors include Adib, who is the director of the Signal Kinetics Group; and Alberto Rodriguez, the Class of 1957 Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Other co-authors include Junshan Leng, a research engineer at Harvard University, and Ian Clester, a PhD student at Georgia Tech.Play video
As e-commerce continues to grow, warehouse work is still usually the domain of humans, not robots, despite sometimes-dangerous working conditions. That's in part because robots struggle to locate and grasp objects in such a crowded environment. "Perception and picking are two roadblocks in the industry today," says Rodriguez. Using optical vision alone, robots can't perceive the presence of an item packed away in a box or hidden behind another object on the shelf — visible light waves, of course, don't pass through walls.
But radio waves can.
For decades, radio frequency (RF) identification has been used to track everything from library books to pets. RF identification systems have two main components: a reader and a tag. The tag is a tiny computer chip that gets attached to — or, in the case of pets, implanted in — the item to be tracked. The reader then emits an RF signal, which gets modulated by the tag and reflected back to the reader.
The reflected signal provides information about the location and identity of the tagged item. The technology has gained popularity in retail supply chains — Japan aims to use RF tracking for nearly all retail purchases in a matter of years. The researchers realized this profusion of RF could be a boon for robots, giving them another mode of perception.
"RF is such a different sensing modality than vision," says Rodriguez. "It would be a mistake not to explore what RF can do."
RF Grasp uses both a camera and an RF reader to find and grab tagged objects, even when they're fully blocked from the camera's view. It consists of a robotic arm attached to a grasping hand. The camera sits on the robot's wrist. The RF reader stands independent of the robot and relays tracking information to the robot's control algorithm. So, the robot is constantly collecting both RF tracking data and a visual picture of its surroundings. Integrating these two data streams into the robot's decision making was one of the biggest challenges the researchers faced.
"The robot has to decide, at each point in time, which of these streams is more important to think about," says Boroushaki. "It's not just eye-hand coordination, it's RF-eye-hand coordination. So, the problem gets very complicated."
The robot initiates the seek-and-pluck process by pinging the target object's RF tag for a sense of its whereabouts. "It starts by using RF to focus the attention of vision," says Adib. "Then you use vision to navigate fine maneuvers." The sequence is akin to hearing a siren from behind, then turning to look and get a clearer picture of the siren's source.
With its two complementary senses, RF Grasp zeroes in on the target object. As it gets closer and even starts manipulating the item, vision, which provides much finer detail than RF, dominates the robot's decision making.
RF Grasp proved its efficiency in a battery of tests. Compared to a similar robot equipped with only a camera, RF Grasp was able to pinpoint and grab its target object with about half as much total movement. Plus, RF Grasp displayed the unique ability to "declutter" its environment — removing packing materials and other obstacles in its way in order to access the target. Rodriguez says this demonstrates RF Grasp's "unfair advantage" over robots without penetrative RF sensing. "It has this guidance that other systems simply don't have."
RF Grasp could one day perform fulfilment in packed e-commerce warehouses. Its RF sensing could even instantly verify an item's identity without the need to manipulate the item, expose its barcode, then scan it. "RF has the potential to improve some of those limitations in industry, especially in perception and localization," says Rodriguez.
Adib also envisions potential home applications for the robot, like locating the right Allen wrench to assemble your Ikea chair. "Or you could imagine the robot finding lost items. It's like a super-Roomba that goes and retrieves my keys, wherever the heck I put them."
The research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NTT DATA, Toppan, Toppan Forms, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS).
A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.
- In 1882, Josias R. King made a mess of mapping Coddington Lake, making it larger than it actually is.
- For decades, Minnesota loggers left the local trees alone, thinking they were under water.
- Today, the area is one of the last remaining patches of old-growth forest in the state.
Vanishingly rare, but it exists: a patch of Minnesota forest untouched by the logger's axe.Credit: Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
The trees here tower a hundred feet above the forest floor — a ceiling as high as in prehistory and vanishingly rare today. That's because no logger's axe has ever touched these woods.
Pillars of the green cathedral
As you walk among the giant pillars of this green cathedral, you might think you're among the redwood trees of California. But those are 1,500 miles (2,500 km) away. No, these are the red and white pines of the "Lost Forty" in Minnesota. This is the largest single surviving patch of old-growth forest in the state and a fair stretch beyond. And it's all thanks to a surveying error.
Despite its name, the Lost Forty Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is actually 144 acres (0.58 km2) in total. Still, it's an easily overlooked part of the Chippewa National Forest, which sprawls across 666,000 acres (2,700 km2) of north-central Minnesota. And that – being easily overlooked – is kind of this area's superpower.
In the 1820s, when European-Americans arrived in what is now Minnesota, they found about 20 million acres (80,000 km2) of prairie and 30 million acres (120,000 km2) of forest. Two centuries on, both ecosystems largely have been depleted. Fewer than 100,000 acres (400 km2) of natural prairie remain, and fewer than 18 million acres (73,000 km2) of forest.
And today's woods are different. They're not just younger; the original pine stands have been harvested and largely replaced with aspen and birch.
To the moon and back
White pine especially was in heavy demand during the lumbering boom that had Minnesota in its grip by the 1840s — a boom driven by an insatiable demand for building materials and supercharged by the steam that powered the saws and the rails that transported the goods to market.
The two decades flanking the turn of the 20th century were the golden age of lumbering in Minnesota. At any given time, 20,000 lumberjacks were at work in the woods, a further 20,000 in the sawmills, and another 20,000 in other lumber-related industries.
Production peaked in the year 1900, with over 2.3 billion board-feet (5.4 million m3) of lumber harvested from the state's forests. That was enough to build 600,000 two-story houses or a boardwalk nine feet (2.7 m) wide, circling Earth along the equator. From then on, yields declined, albeit slightly at first. By 1910, however, the first lumber operations started packing up and moving on to the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.
Minnesota's era of Big Timber symbolically came to an end with the closure of the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company in 1929. At that time, a century's worth of lumbering in Minnesota had produced 68 billion board-feet (160 million m3) of pine — enough to fill a line of boxcars all the way to the moon and halfway back again.
Now spool back a few decades. It's 1882, and the Public Land Survey is measuring, mapping, and quantifying the wilderness of northern Minnesota — and its as yet unharvested north woods. Setting out from the small settlement of Grand Rapids, Josias Redgate King leads a three-man survey team 40 miles north, into the backwoods.
Mapping error becomes cartographic fact
Their job, specifically, is to chart the area between Moose and Coddington Lakes. And they mess up. Perhaps it's the lousy November weather, the desolate swampy terrain, or both. But they make a serious mistake: their survey stretches Coddington Lake half a mile further northwest than it actually exists. As happens surprisingly often with mapping mistakes, the error becomes cartographic fact, undisputed for decades.
The area is marked on all maps as being under water and is therefore excluded from the considerations of logging companies. Only in 1960 is the area re-surveyed and the error corrected. But by then, as we have seen, Big Timber has moved on from the Gopher State.
Map of the "Lost Forty" SNA (top right). Bordering it on the south is the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area. Credit: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Incidentally, Josias R. King was more than the mismapper of Coddington Lake. He has another, and rather better, claim to fame. When the Civil War broke out, Minnesota was the first state to offer volunteers to fight for the Union. At Fort Snelling, Mr. King rushed to the front of a line of men waiting to sign up.
So it was said, with some justification, that he was the first volunteer for the Union in all of the country. During the war, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. After, he returned to his civilian job, surveying. Because of his credentials as the Union's first volunteer, he was asked to pose for the face of the bronze soldier on the Civil War monument which was unveiled at St. Paul's Summit Park in 1903.
The loggers' loss is nature's gain
But back to the Lost Forty. The loggers' loss — hence the name — is actually nature's gain. The SNA's crowning glory, literally, is nearly 32 acres of designated old-growth red pine and white pine forest, in two stands, partially extending into the Chippewa National Forest proper. (In fact, much of the mismapped area seems to fall within the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area adjacent to the Lost Forty.) Old-growth forests represent less than 2 percent — and designated old-growth forests less than 0.25 percent — of all of Minnesota's forests.
The oldest pine trees in the Lost Forty are between 300 and 400 years old, close to their maximum natural life span, which is up to 500 years. Similar pines in other parts of the National Forest are harvested at between 80 and 150 years for pulp and lumber. As a result, the pines in the Lost Forty are not only higher than most of the surrounding woods but also bigger with a diameter of between 22 and 48 inches (55 to 122 cm). One of the biggest has a circumference of 115 inches (2.9 m).
With their craggy bark, massive trunks, and dizzying height, these trees look like the ancient beings they are. And they exist in a cluster the size of which is unique for the Midwest. There's nothing lost about these trees; in fact, it's rather the reverse. Perhaps the area should more precisely be called the "Last Forty."
At 52 feet, only half as high as an old-growth white pine: Josias R. King's likeness atop the Soldier's Monument in Summit Park, St. Paul.Credit: Library of Congress
Get a good look at the Lost Forty in this video of the local hiking trail.
Strange Maps #1084
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is working from home the ultimate liberation or the first step toward an even unhappier "new normal"?
- The Great Resignation is an idea proposed by Professor Anthony Klotz that predicts a large number of people leaving their jobs after the COVID pandemic ends and life returns to "normal."
- French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that by establishing what is and is not "normal," we are exerting a kind of power by making people behave a certain way.
- If working from home becomes the new normal, we must be careful that it doesn't give way to a new lifestyle that we hate even more than the office.
You wake up, you put on your work clothes, and you go to the office. You sit behind a desk, or in some designated space, and you work until the clock says it's over. This is what life is like for the vast majority of people. That is, until COVID came along. Then, everything changed.
Recently, an interesting idea has emerged called the "Great Resignation." This is a phenomenon that Professor Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University has predicted will happen when people are asked, or told, to return to their offices. Klotz argues that, when we're all forced back into the old reality of the commute, a nine-to-five job, and cubicle life, there will be a "Great Resignation" among the workforce.
The argument is that in times of uncertainty and insecurity — like during a global pandemic — people behave conservatively. They'll stay put. But once things "normalize" again, we ought to expect employees to head for the exits.
But why? What has changed? Why has working from home made us so dissatisfied with our previously normal lives? Other than the comfort and convenience of working from home, one explanation might involve the concept of "normalization," a topic that fascinated French philosopher Michel Foucault.
The power of normal people
Foucault argued that we often spend an inordinate amount of time trying to be normal. We must dress the same way as everyone else. We must talk about the same things. We must work just like everyone else works. It's hugely important that things are normal. But, behind all of this, is a power dynamic that many of us are simply unaware of — and unconsciously unhappy about.
Someone, somewhere, must define what is "normal." It is then for the rest of us to bend over backward to fit into this narrow mold. To be powerful, then, is to say, "Do this, otherwise everyone will call you weird." Power is to hold the hoops everyone else must jump through. It's what Foucault describes as "normalizing power."
COVID was a wake-up call to the abnormality of modern work
Let's apply Focault's normalization concept to the modern workplace. Accepted wisdom had it that the best — and really, the only way — to work was in an office, usually downtown, far away from where we live. We were told this is where collaboration and creativity occur. Largely unchallenged, this "normal" functioned for decades, and we all obeyed.
We had to wake up at the crack of dawn to get ready for work. We had to travel in clogged and joyless commutes. We had to eat ready-packaged lunches behind our too-small desks. We had to sit through meetings in "good posture" ergonomic chairs that wouldn't be out of place in the Spanish Inquisition. Then we had to travel back home in yet another clogged and joyless commute. And we did this day after day after day.
Then COVID came along and revealed just how artificial, unnecessary, and abnormal it all is. It's as if someone ripped a blindfold off of society. We have laptops, wi-fi, and 5G (at least when people aren't burning the towers down). Many of us were just as productive — if not more so — than during the "normal" pre-COVID era. We don't need to be in an office. We don't need to waste countless hours of our lives sitting in traffic.
While the idea of a Great Resignation is quite appealing right now, we should be careful the "new normal" isn't so much worse.
Even better, people got to spend more time with their families, enjoy long and restful breaks, and have space to pursue their hobbies. In short, people like not going to an office. And, as Klotz argues, when companies see this dissatisfaction — this Great Resignation — they're going to ask some revolutionary questions, like, "Do you want to come back full time? Work remotely? In-office three days a week? Four days? One day?"
The silver lining to the COVID pandemic is that it has made us re-examine what "normal" is.
Beware the new normal
Of course, the idea of a nine-to-five office job was not established by some moustache-twirling villain just to satisfy his sadistic whims. It came about because people thought that was the most effective and productive way to operate.
People do need direct human contact, and it's often easier and more productive to speak to a colleague next to you or walk across an office to ask for some help. Remote-working software like Zoom is indeed convenient, but can a company honestly say that it's as efficient as working in an office?
What's more, there's a particularly pernicious sting in what Foucault argued. It's something that ought to slow any would-be Great Resignation. This is the idea that there likely will always be some kind of normal.
While COVID has revealed the office for the normalized power play that it is, what's to say what the next "normal" will be? Let's say that working from home becomes the new normal. Will we be expected to attend Zoom meetings at any hour of the day or answer text messages at midnight? Might cameras be used to monitor our every movement? Might software check that we're working at the right pace and in the right way?
While the idea of a Great Resignation is quite appealing right now, we should be careful the "new normal" isn't so much worse.